The phrase, “You are what you eat” is quite common but what about, “You are what your BRAIN eats”. It may sound funny but the food people digest directly impacts how they think and feel! A diet high in whole foods (foods that can be found in nature) gives the human brain exactly what it needs. If the diet is less than optimal, however, the brain can run into trouble. A diet high in carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates and sugar, creates a variety of changes that fuel inflammation and create havoc in the brain. Examples include soda, chips, French fries, ice cream, cookies, bread, and rice. High, frequent intake of these types of foods drives high blood sugar, growth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut (intestines), and a variety of negative brain effects. These effects can range from brain fog (feeling like you aren’t thinking clearly or effectively) to mood disturbances (sadness, depression, anxiety) or full-blown migraine headaches. Other conditions, such as bipolar disorder, post traumatic brain injury, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, have also been linked to this type of eating. It’s surprising to think that excessive carbohydrates have such a strong impact on the brain but they do!
To help prevent migraines and optimize brain function well it’s necessary to take a look at the fuel that’s consumed. The human brain weighs three pounds and uses two sources of fuel: glucose and/or ketones. When a person follows a typical American diet that is high in carbohydrates they use primarily glucose for fuel. If, however, they follow a very low carbohydrate (ketogenic) diet or fast their brain switches from using primarily glucose to using ketones for fuel. The ketones come from a high intake of healthy fat and/or the person’s body fat. This creates an ideal environment for the brain and body to thrive. Blood sugar levels remain steady, healthy bacteria grow in the gut (and unhealthy bacteria do not), and the brain functions more effectively. These habits create not only a beneficial brain effect but they also help optimize human longevity!
Recent research supports the use of a ketogenic diet for brain benefits. First, a ketogenic diet has been shown to increase levels of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that are often lower in people with depression. Second, the diet bypasses the need for glucose utilization. (Many depression disorders are connected to a reduction in brain glucose utilization). As the brain uses ketones for fuel it experiences less metabolic stress and functions much better, leading to improved mood. Third, insulin resistance, which is often associated with bipolar disorder, is improved by a ketogenic diet. This improvement helps the brain utilize glucose more efficiently. Finally, studies of individuals who have tried a ketogenic diet reveal that participants see an improvement in headache severity and quality of life and some have complete resolution of migraine headaches. There are also case reports and anecdotal reports of individuals finding great benefit from following a ketogenic diet for migraine management. Whether it’s headaches, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or other neurological conditions the evidence shows that a ketogenic diet can help.
It’s clear to see that both science and research support the pivotal role that ketones play in helping the brain to function well. The next step is to change human habits so people can get all the benefits of ketone production! A person can do this by adopting a ketogenic eating style with or without regular fasting OR a low-carbohydrate eating style with regular fasting. This way of eating includes choosing foods with adequate protein (i.e. eggs, meat, poultry, nuts, seeds), high amounts of healthy fat (i.e. olive oil, coconut oil, avocado), high amounts of fiber (non-starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruits), and limited amounts of carbohydrate-containing foods (grains, beans, peas, and fruit). It emphasizes foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain health (i.e. salmon and walnuts), and items that contain large amounts of brain-boosting vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (extra components of vegetables and other whole foods that protect our brains and help them function at their very best). Overall it provides a solid source of nutrition that fuels the brain and helps it function at its very best !
References: The Ketogenic Bible (2017) and The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living (2011)